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"A Happy Moving Party"
By Jim Willingham
I talked with a Vietnamese man from the beach village 1/2 km. southeast of Phan Thiet artillery base. He was standing at the southeast end of the corrugated black metal runway, watching us. As the soldiers watched, I yelled toward the forest south of the east-west runway, "Little Corsica!" Uproarious laughter erupted from the woods. Then I yelled, "Little Corsica, Saigon!" More uproarious laughter came from the southern woods, heavier. Then I had all the soldiers on the base yell together, "LITTLE CORSICA, SAIGON!" A mass of uncontrollable uproarious laughter came from the deep woods, only about 100 yards south, with talking in Vietnamese.
The man from the beach village spoke English. One of the soldiers on the base spoke Italian and had a pleasant short talk with a man in the southern forest, who also spoke Italian, a descendent of (French) Corsicans and Vietnamese. They organized a "happy moving party" through the woods and moved the people from the tiny village 3 km. west of the base south, then east to the beach village.
There had been an ambush by North Vietnamese Viet Cong the day before, 1&1/2 km west of the base on the narrow, straight trail to the west village. Women usually walked that trail in the morning, did 1/2 the laundry, walked back, then returned the next morning to finish the last half of the laundry.
The village was isolated in a small square cut out of the woods around them, with another path north 1 km. to the main east-west highway, just south of where the Pacific Coast mountains turn westward, and they were harassed by the militant northern VC, who came down into the southeastern forests from the highlands on an incline several km. west. They were giving pure heroin to the women to sell to the soldiers. The women had no choice, because the combatants were like gangsters.
The women did laundry for two days, waited 3 days off and repeated it. There was an arrogant Lt. who no one talked to. The warrant officers, two Huey choppers, 4 pilots, and the other soldiers had been trying to wean off the 3 addicted soldiers, but they dared not tell the Lt. "It was going well."
On September 7, 1970, the women walked east to the base down the long straight trail, 5 feet of grass on either side, with 50 feet-plus tall trees and deep forest. One of the women sold one of the 3 addicted soldiers a large amount of pure heroin, down in his sleeping bunker. At the end of their workday, one of the other women told the Lt, "VC were in the village last night," then they walked home. No one said anything.
The next morning, the women didn't come back to finish the laundry. The arrogant Lt. remarked, "The women didn't come back this morning. That's strange." Before he could stop himself, the ranking sergeant said, "Something's up" and regretted it, because the irrational Lt. ordered a patrol to the village.
"That could be dangerous," remarked the sergeant." The Lt. pointed his .45 at the sergeant and said, "Are you refusing an order from an officer?" "No sir." The sergeant formed up a patrol of six men and requested chopper cover. "That might alarm the villagers."
Halfway down the trail they were ambushed on both sides, falling sideways in alternating directions. The chopper crews ran out over the Lt. "I did not order choppers." "We're going anyway!" They evacuated the men, 2 dead, 1 dying, 1 wounded who survived. Medivacs took them, no replacements.
The men at the base were furious, with the sergeant, a survivor, telling them they'd put the Lt. up for an Article 89. One of the heroin addicted soldiers tossed a grenade into the command post, fragging the Lt.
The sergeant arrested the soldier, took his weapon and sent him to his sleeping bunker. The three heroin addicted soldiers got wasted together, the arrested soldier over-dosing. The base was down eight men and they were tired and grim. At 3 AM, a sapper came in through the wires northeast of the base, went down into the sleeping bunker, slit the three drugged soldiers' throats and left, unseen.
It was my first mission as a C-7 copilot in country, early morning. I helped carry one of the lost soldiers on board, spoke to the escort then the soldiers. They were grim. I talked to them about the UCMJ, how to cover for each other in a situation to avoid irrational orders. They understood.
I talked across the runway to the man from the village. They would move the western village to the beach, then I would airdrop $5,000 on the runway at 4:30 in the afternoon.
I and a soldier carried out a white phosphorus bomb from the plane, showed it to the Vietnamese man and placed it inside the base. We flew out to the west over the little village. I prayed.
At 12 noon, the two Hueys flew out and landed on the south side of the village and soldiers walked through, making sure it was empty, then faced east, down the trail. Four unarmed men in black pajamas stepped out onto the trail from the southeast. The sapper was with them crying. One spoke English. He told the soldiers they could shoot him. They forgave him, if he would stay with the southern people in peace and turn the northerners to peace. They returned to the woods. The choppers climbed to 1,000 feet an the white phosphorus bomb was tossed onto the village, turning it to white ash.
I went to the parachute shop at Bien Hoa AFB. They rigged up the pack of money. The man was waiting that afternoon, for the airdrop. After that, the women were safe and no heroin came into the base. "It bought a respite from the attacks for awhile."
Seven days later, I met a radiant Buddhist monk in Cam Ranh on a goodwill mission to a children's school. I spoke to him in private, after the others had gone outside. He served us pink lemonade.
Jim Willingham is a VVAW member who lives in Florida.